Flamsteed Astronomy Society

October 14, 2004 — The University of Greenwich, in conjunction with Greenwich Community College, presented The Search for Life in the Universe, a talk by Dr Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute.   FAS members including Frank Bath and Ian McDowell were there —


The lecture was held in King William Court and attended by up to 200 people: students; the general public; and a sprinkling of FAS members.   Dr Laurance Doyle is a large, soft-spoken American from the University of California at Santa Cruz.   His talk was accompanied by slides throughout.  He started the evening by introducing us to the Drake Equation, first presented in 1961 by Frank Drake, now Chairman of the Board at the SETI Institute.  Drake’s Equation attempts to estimate the number of civilisations in the Milky Way who’s electromagnetic emissions are detectable.


It looks like this


N = R* . fp . ne . fl . fi . fc . L


During the body of the lecture Dr Doyle enumerated and filled-out several terms in this long and awkward expression, which ranged from the rate of star formation through to the longevity of any possible civilisation.  On the way he elaborated a whole range of factors, including the necessity or otherwise, of a Jupiter-sized planet to soak up comets in a solar-type system; the presence of water; photosynthesis; and an outline of information theory.

Informative and always entertaining, Dr Doyle asked us to consider why the Age of the Dinosaurs didn’t produce a tool-using civilisation, given that all the important human features are found in the fossil record.  By way of illustration he gave us a picture of such an evolved creature, evidently a refugee from Roswell (see photo).  And would, in the fullness of evolutionary time, bees fly to the Moon?

Describing the difficulty we may have in recognising extra-terrestrial signals, we were asked to think about communication with intelligent creatures such as dolphins.  The session concluded with questions and answers.  Asked to give his definition of intelligence, Dr Doyle humorously proposed the ability to build a radio telescope, before modifying this to the ability to make complex communication.

I would have liked to have a copy of the Drake Equation in front of me all the time, and I had difficulty hearing after the radio mic. packed-up (they always seem to, don’t they).  On the other hand, Dr Doyle was a performer and went through things at a fair old canter.  It was an enjoyable evening spent in the company of a warm and user-friendly lecturer.


Frank Bath



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Dr Laurance Doyle (er, left) with ‘uber-dinosaur’

photo Ian McDowell

The Search for Life in the Universe

— Dr Laurance Doyle Oct 14, 2004